< August 16, 2009 >

Commentary on Proverbs 9:1-6

 

In many ways, the message in this text of Proverbs is quite simple: wisdom is better than foolishness.

The same point gets echoed in the New Testament text for today, when Ephesians 5:15 counsels, "Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise." However, while Ephesians clearly states such advice, Proverbs explains more fully the benefits of choosing the way of wisdom. And the way in which this message of the advantage of wisdom over folly gets delivered in Proverbs is anything but simple. Proverbs 9:1-6 uses creative metaphors, provocative analogies, and vivid imagery to explain its message. In fact, it resembles a good sermon! There is a clear main point, one that is very applicable to the lives of those who hear it, but it is conveyed in a persuasive manner with a richness that makes it much more meaningful than a simple truism.

As is so often the case in the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified. In this poem, the activities with which she is occupied include building a house and hosting a feast. In verse 1, when she builds her house, the process includes hewing out "seven pillars." There are a number of possible interpretations for what this means, depending on how literally or metaphorically one wishes to understand the text. The "house" has also been interpreted as a palace, a temple, the cosmos itself, or even the poem contained in this passage with its repetition of seven verbs (the feast has six verbs, and the invitation to celebrate includes one. six actions, and the invitation to celebrate takes one). 1

In more metaphorical interpretations, the pillars have been compared to a number of things, including the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven liberal arts, or the seven churches of Revelation 1:11-3:22. If the "house" is the cosmos, or the created order, these pillars could be the pillars of earth (cf. Psalm 75:3, 1 Samuel 2:8, and Job 9:6, 26:11). Raymond Van Leeuwen suggests that the seven could be an inner-biblical allusion to the six days of creation, plus the day of Sabbath.2  Such an understanding of Wisdom is expressed in Proverbs 8:22-31, Job 28:23-28, and Sirach 24, that wisdom is present and active in creation. A more literal interpretation of this structure as an actual house can be supported by the archeological discoveries which have found seven pillars in the homes of wealthy patricians.

The main activity Wisdom does in this text is to host a feast, and a sumptuous one at that. Verse 2 explains, "she has slaughtered her animals (literally; she has slaughtered the things slaughtered); she mixed her wine; surely she has set her table." Meat and wine were not usually consumed by common people (cf. Amos 6:4-6), which confirms that this is a special meal. Of course, this ought not be understood only as a literal feast. Wisdom's own words in Proverbs 9:6 tell us that the food and drink she prepares are metaphors for the banquet of life, and partaking of the meal that she has laid out is connected with walking on the straight path (literally, "way," from the Hebrew derek) of understanding.

Yet, despite the richness of what is provided, those invited to this feast are not only the wealthy and the elite, but those who are simple and lacking sense (verse 3, cf. verse 6, where she calls them to forsake their simplicity). Such an inclusive invitation is reminiscent of Jesus' parable where, after the honored guests responds with regrets, all are invited to the feast (Luke 14:15-24). Wisdom sends out her servants to invite people to the feast (verse 3), but also issues a personal invitation herself (verse 4).

Our text makes clear the benefits of following Wisdom, of answering her invitation, gathering in her house and consuming what she has prepared. But if we go just slightly outside the bounds of the lectionary pericope to the end of the chapter, we see Wisdom contrasted with Folly. Like all other good contrasts, this one includes similarities, namely that Folly, like Wisdom, is also on the heights (8:14). Certainly, this is an apt and accurate description of the way that Wisdom and Folly vie for followers. It is not that one is so much easier to see and hear than the others, but that the choice must be made between them. Another similarity is that Folly, like Wisdom, calls out to the simple and those without sense (Proverbs 9:16), using the same exact language that Wisdom uses in 9:4, "Whoever is simple, turn in here! To those without sense, she says..."

However, despite the similarity between them, there are much more evident differences. One is the nature of the meal: while Wisdom offers meat and wine, Folly is serving bread and water (9:17). This, too, need not only be literally understood: the end of the chapter lets us know that the meal Folly is serving is death (9:18). While it might seem an obvious choice to make, part of the enduring drama conveyed in this text is that some continue to choose Folly over Wisdom, to continue in the way of simplicity instead of wisdom.

The wise person's life−though the call is to the one who is simple and who lacks sense−is to dwell in Wisdom's house, where there are ample provisions and life, in contrast with the house of Folly with its lesser offerings and its death. As the beginning of Proverbs tells us, though, wisdom can always increase even among the wise (Proverbs 1:5). Thus, more than a final destination, to dwell in the house of Wisdom is a process that continues throughout the life of the one who answers her invitation.


1Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, "Proverbs." New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Volume 5. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 102.
2Ibid.